Camilla Pemberton enjoys a tale of inmates’ paternal love
Soho Theatre, London
Nearly half of the under-21s in our prisons are fathers. But they are a group largely forgotten by society. Playwright Phillip Osment and the National Youth Theatre (NYT) have given them a voice in Fathers Inside, which ran for two weeks at London’s Soho Theatre.
The theatre’s small black box space on a hot evening was an ideal backdrop for the heady frustration of a prison wing where 10 young fathers were confronting their feelings about parenthood in a drama class. Dysfunctional relationships with mostly absent fathers emerged, yet the irony of the inmates’ own absenteeism was lost on them.
“My kids have all they need,” said one 20-year-old father of four. But their teacher hits raw nerves when he asks them to write letters to their fathers and their children.
Letters to their fathers chronicle different cultural backgrounds with similar themes: abuse; neglect; indifference. Their feelings are coloured by anger and rejection. One starts his letter, “Dear scumbag”.
But letters to their children reveal hope. They are sure their children can, and should, have the choices they didn’t. “I’d stay in here for ever if Archie could have his dreams,” says one inmate, talking about his baby.
Anyone who has worked with young offenders will recognise the characters. This authenticity comes from how the play was developed. Director and manager of the NYT’s social inclusion programme Jim Pope, along with Osment and the cast, met young fathers at Rochester Prison in Kent. Osment transformed their experiences of prison and parenthood into a witty, poignant script brought to life by stunning performances. Only some of the young cast were NYT actors. Others were students or had been in NYT outreach schemes.
Osment’s characterisations are non-judgemental. Brownie (Segun Olaiya) is a bully. But glimpses of his anguished longing for paternal love and desire to look after his own child are enough to show that this angry, hateful young man is no lost soul. As Aswan (Darren Douglas-Letts) starts to realise his limited ability on the inside to influence his children positively on the outside, Damian (Kyle Thorne) begins to understand the gap he is leaving in his daughter’s life.
Off stage, the project, which lent its name to the play, continues to work with imprisoned fathers and their families and is run by charity Safe Ground.
This review appears in the 24 September 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Inside story on young dads”